Thursday 6 September 2012

The History Girls’ Guide to Becoming an Authoress at the End of the World as We Know It– Katherine Roberts

“May you live in interesting times” is a curse in some circles but, like it or not, authors today are living in very interesting times. There has been some wild speculation about the death of publishing as we know it, the death of printed books, the death of literature, the death of agents, and the death of professional authors (of which mine has been greatly exaggerated). But the only thing that’s really changed is the way a story gets out of the author’s head and into the reader’s head... the writing, publishing and distribution process, in other words. Because stories are same now as they were thousands of years ago, when cavemen told tales around their campfires at night.

So let’s take a look at how an authoress might fare in the different eras of publishing so far (this is a History Girls Guide, so I’m afraid any boys reading this will have to speculate wildly at each stage to see how they fit in). All eras wildly speculative - if you want a more serious history of printing, try Wikipedia.

Campfire Era (3,000 BC-ish)
Training: Woman experiences being dragged off to a cave by her hair to get to know her future husband.
Getting the story down: She can’t write, so she just tells the story around the campfire, explaining to her children how they came into the world in terms of the moon and a stork… a myth.
Debut novel: The day others in her tribe listen to her tale.
Next book(s): If she’s a good storyteller, there will be demand for more.
Authoresses who thrived: We’ve no idea, since nobody could write their name.
Bestseller: cave paintings (mostly of men hunting bison).
Note: In more civilised parts of the world, they had cuneiform writing and could "print" on clay with cylinder seals.

Scroll Era (500BC – 500AD)
Training: Woman probably can’t write herself, so sings or makes up poems and tells stories.
Getting the story down: If she's lucky (and young and pretty), an admiring male scribe writes it down for her.
Debut novel: Handwritten on several scrolls stored in a box.
Next book(s): Ditto. If her books prove popular, more handwritten copies will be painstakingly made of each one.
Authoresses who thrived: Sappho, Scheherazade?
Bestseller: The Iliad.

Dark Era (500 - 1450)
Training: A girl might learn to read and write if she's lucky, though most schools at the time are run by monks for boys.
Getting the story down: by hand.
Debut novel: made into beautifully illuminated books by those monks, or possibly printed using a woodblock technique developed in a more civilised part of the world.
Next book(s): ditto.
Authoresses who thrived: Any ideas? (These were the dark ages, obviously.)
Bestseller: Kama Sutra in more civilised parts of the world. The Bible in Europe (blame those monks).

Print Era (1450 - 1900)
Training: Educated lady of independent means writes a novel beneath her embroidery.
Getting the story down: by hand.
Debut novel: She sends her book to a publisher (often a family friend) or publishes it herself. Paper copies are printed on the new printing presses to sell in physical bookstores.
Next book(s): If her book is popular, more might be printed. Very few authors can afford to publish, so she'll probably continue until she chooses to retire from writing or throws herself into a lake in despair.
Authoresses who thrived: Bronte sisters
Bestseller: Wuthering Heights.

NBA Era (1900 - 1997)
Training: Working woman of limited means writes a novel in her spare time and submits it to publishers’ and agents’ “slush piles”.
Getting the story down: Typewriter and (later) desktop computer.
Debut novel: Publisher draws up a legal contract with the author and prints paper copies to sell in several thriving bookshop chains, hundreds of dedicated independent stores, plus (later) a handful to sell online with the fledgling amazon. The Net Book Agreement ensures that discounting is illegal so all stores have an equal chance at survival and the author gets a fair royalty from sales.
Next book(s): If she continues to deliver good work, the same publisher (or the same editor) continues to publish her new books until she chooses to retire from writing.
Authoresses who thrived: Enid Blyton, Jacqueline Wilson.
Bestseller: The Famous Five.

EPOS Era (1997 - 2010)
Training: Young woman leaves school and goes to University to do a creative writing course and learn the ins and outs of the publishing business. Meets talent-spotting young agent, who gets her a 2-book publishing deal. If she doesn’t get a publishing deal, she’ll probably go on to teach creative writing, or find work as an editor.
Getting the story down: Computer.
Debut novel: Publisher draws up a legal contract with the agent, then prints paper copies to sell in the big bookshop chains, a handful of remaining independents, and online at amazon. Many copies are sold at discount following collapse of the NBA.
Next book(s): If authoress sells enough books (either by good word of mouth and/or large publisher's promotional budget) according to Nielsen's Bookscan figures* based on electronic point of sale, more books are commissioned until she chooses to retire from writing. If she’s not so lucky, her publisher drops her after the first 2 books, and her agent must find another publisher.
Authoresses who thrive: JK Rowling, Celebrities in other fields.
Bestseller: Harry Potter.
*Nielsen Bookscan does not cover all books sold, so some authoresses of this era have good reason to throw themselves into a lake in despair.

Ebook Era (2010 - ????)
Training: Teenagers, housewives, get-rich-quick entrepreneurs, creative writing graduates who didn’t make it out of the starting gates in the EPOS Era, and experienced authors dropped during the EPOS Era who have not yet thrown themselves into a lake in despair, publish worldwide via. amazon's kdp.
Getting the story down and publishing: Computer with an internet connection.
Debut novel: Sold online as an ebook original, mostly at amazon. No copies in physical bookshops (hardly any physical bookshops left anyway).
Next book(s):  If she’s lucky, word-of-mouth spread by online social media sells her books worldwide in enormous quantities, and publishers come to her begging for the paperback rights to sell in the few remaining bookshops.
Authoresses who thrive: E L James
Bestseller: Fifty Shades of Grey.

Obviously there is some overlap where unusual opportunities exist - for example the first Harry Potter was published at the end of the NBA era, allowing the series to build momentum just in time to take off in the EPOS era, and quite a few American authors who could not get published at all in the EPOS era made their name at the start of the Ebook era by jumping straight in. I began my writing career at the start of the EPOS Era (Song Quest, 1999), and am entering the Ebook Era as one of the experienced authors who did not drown herself in despair (though I came quite close to drowning myself in the bath at one point), so your view of the publishing industry might be quite different from mine depending upon when and how you started, and how long you have been writing. And if you're a reader, then maybe you've noticed the falling prices of books and the fact you can't find your favourite author in the shops any more.

Since all the above is of course wild speculation, feel free to add your own theories to the comments below to improve this unauthorised History Girls' Guide to Becoming an Authoress at the End of the World as We Know It... better be quick if you're thinking of becoming one, though, because according to an ancient Mayan prophecy the world might end on 21st December 2012.
Katherine Roberts is a children’s author currently published by Templar.

Book 1 of the Pendragon Legacy Sword of Light will be out in paperback and ebook later this month.
Book 2 Lance of Truth publishes in hardcover on 1st October 2012.

Visit Katherine's website for more information

Visit Katherine's astore to see all her books (EPOS Era and Ebook Era) available online at amazon.


Marie-Anne Mancio said...

I'd like to suggest Christine de Pisan (c.1364-c.1430)for the Middle Ages. Not only a poet and story-writer, but a proto-feminist and an early History Girl.(see: The Book of the City of Ladies).

Jane Borodale said...

Hilarious and yet by the end so horribly true Katherine. Untrod territory ahead of us as readers or writers. But I'd like to keep that campfire image lit in head - am hoping there'll be a use for storytellers of some sort way into the future - surely? (Checks for nearest lake.)

PS. Dark era - Hildegard of Bingen/ Margery Kempe?

Katherine Langrish said...

Brilliant and oh so true. Gosh. If the world's going to end in December, I'd better get on the with the WIP.

Mary Hoffman said...

We are celebrating our Ruby Wedding anniversary on 22nd December and I'll be very annoyed if some old Mayan cocks it up.

Great post, Katherine!

Joan Lennon said...

I'm so glad you posted this - my next book deadline is on Mary's Ruby Wedding anniversary aka 22nd December - having the world end the day before really takes the pressure off!

Kathleen Jones said...

Margaret Cavendish (Duchess of Newcastle in her spare time) was the most prolific female author of the 17th century, published her own work and was nicknamed Mad Madge, or the Whore of Welbeck. She is a brilliant pioneer but was for centuries held up to would-be women authors as a cautionary tale! I wrote my first biography of her for Bloomsbury following one of the paths you map in your blog and then published it on Kindle under the final option! You've drawn it all out wonderfully.

Katherine Roberts said...

Thank you for those Dark Age authoress suggestions... Mad Madge sounds particularly interesting! (I'll have to look up your biography of her on my Kindle, Kathleen.)

Congratulations on the Ruby, Mary! You might be all right for 22nd if they got the timing slightly off. I've got a book delivery deadline at the end of December, too (the final book in my Pendragon series), so I'm hoping there will still be some readers around in 2013!

Leslie Wilson said...

The Mayans WERE probably using a different calendar. Maybe they were not just a few days off, but a few centuries. Maybe the end of the world is as hard to predict as the sales of any given book.

Jenny Alexander said...

Brilliant post, Kath! I'm one of those authors who quite liked the EPOS era but are totally ecstatic that suddenly there are other routes to readers except via a few gatekeeper publishers with a purely commercial agenda.

Katherine Roberts said...

Yes Jenny, I agree. I never quite made my breakout in the EPOS era, and therefore have a backlog of uncontracted manuscripts and ideas still looking for a way to reach readers... which is why I hope Leslie is right, and the Mayan end of the world is at least a few decades off!

Katherine Roberts said...

PS. The Ebook Era is gathering steam! Today Amazon launch their new colour Kindle Fire in the UK, and have just reduced the price of their basic Kindle to £69.

Wendy R said...

Having survived as published author from 1986 right through to your ebook era I loved your witty rundown on the whole publishing shebang from the authoress's point of view. (Are you reinstating the term authoress? Nice one!)
Good to see that ebooking is liberating new and talented writers in this phase.
Simply super post. W

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